On February 27, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved an exemption that will allow for drone-swarming operations within the agricultural industry. The request for exemption was filed by Hylio, a Texas-based drone manufacturer, but it could creat a buzz around crop fields in North Carolina.

“North Carolina farmers are innovative and adaptive, which is why agriculture and agribusiness remains our state’s No. 1 industry,” North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler told the Carolina Journal in an email. “FAA’s decision to allow farmers to maximize the use of drones in agricultural production is great news for farmers. Drones are already being used in many ways in farming, but this ruling will increase their capacity and unlock even more potential efficiencies and savings for farmers. Helping them cut costs of production improves the bottom line and allows our farmers to continue to be successful.”

Authorized operations include any unmanned aircraft system (UAS), along with the approved maximum take-off weight (MTOW) weight, including payload, identified on the List of Approved Agricultural UAS. Any operations of aircraft not on the list, or at different weights than currently approved, will require approval of a new petition according to the FAA.

This exemption specifically applies to fleets of drones — or “drone swarming” — for drones weighing 55 pounds or more for seeding and spraying crops. 

The cost of using drones is about a quarter to a third cheaper than the cost of using traditional machinery. For instance, the cost of three drones comes in significantly less than that of a single tractor. Drones also use less water and less fuel while also causing less soil compaction, according to a report by Fox News Digital.

“In my view, the use of drones in agriculture for crop seeding and spraying has real potential for lowering costs and providing benefits for small farms who wouldn’t be able to afford the use of aircraft,” Rep. Eric Ager, D-Buncombe, told the Carolina Journal in an email. “That being said, I think it is important that we have an effective airspace control system in place to prevent accidents that could occur with helicopter operations at low altitudes, and there is quite a bit of work that needs to be done in this regard.”

Rep. Ager sits on the House Agriculture Committee. 

“Safely integrating drones into the National Airspace System is a key priority for the FAA,” Rick Breitenfeldt, spokesman for FAA, told the Carolina Journal in an email. “Current FAA rulemaking efforts are focused on developing a standard set of rules for operations beyond visual line-of-sight (BVLOS) to make these kinds of operations routine, scalable and economically viable. The FAA chartered the Beyond Visual Line of Sight Aviation Rulemaking Committee on June 9, 2021 to provide safety recommendations to the FAA, including specific consideration of requirements to support precision agriculture operations, including crop spraying. We are currently reviewing their final report, which includes a recommendation to the FAA to establish certification and operating requirements for higher-weight (in excess of 200 lbs.) drones operating beyond visual line-of-sight.”